Email this article to a friend

The ITT List

Wednesday, Apr 16, 2008, 2:52 pm

Inequality Kills

By Brian Cook
Public Broadcasting’s documentary series—such as Frontline and P.O.V.—are oases of thoughtful reporting amidst the hyperventilated frenzy of cable news. And a current series produced by the venerable California Newsreel ranks among the best of public broadcasting for tackling an intellectually tough but vital issue in a clear, expository and engaging fashion.

Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? looks at the myriad ways growing economic inequality in the United States makes Americans sicker and shortens their lives. This isn’t just about the effects of grinding poverty or the lack of health care that may first come to mind. Inequality hurts the health of everyone, up and down the income ladder--just moreso the lower someone ranks economically.

The key insight is that inequality creates stress, not only because of the income differences that create tensions over one’s ability to share in the life of one’s society but also because lower-ranked people have less control over their lives. Stress leads the body to create hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Those chemicals are useful in sharpening response to a temporary threat--perhaps the approach of a wild animal. But over time they can contribute to weakened immune systems, hypertension, diabetes, cancer and a host of other ailments that particularly plague societies once they reach certain basic levels of nutrition and protection against infectious diseases.

The effects were quite dramatic in a study of British civil servants at Whitehall, the foreign ministry. Excluding other factors, such as personal habits, the research showed that mortality rates--roughly speaking, the chances of premature death--increased with every step down the occupational and income hierarchy.

Inequality kills.

The four-part series demonstrates how living in different neighborhoods matter, so the effects of inequality are transmitted through in the inequality of conditions where people live--neighborhoods in Seattle and Richmond, Calif., are contrastetd--as well as directly through effects of income and power at work. Another episode looks at contrasting communities in the Marshall Islands, where Marshallese with little power over their lives and resources in a tiny economy dominated by a U.S. military base have tuberculosis rates 23 times as high as in the United States. Yet another shows how American domination of the Pima tribe of Native Americans--depriving them of water and their traditional ways of life--also contributed to high rates of diabetes. And another carefully lays out research about how the strerss of racial inequality accounts for high premature birth rates and infant mortality, even when comparing blacks and whites in the U.S. of comparable income.

Using a visit to Greenville, Michigan, where Electrolux shut down the small town’s major employer and moved its refrigerator manufacturing to Mexico, Unnatural Causes shows how unemployment and economic dislocation led to a tripling of cases of suicide and depression in the year after the closing. By researcher Harvey Brenner’s calculations, the closing will lead to 134 “excess deaths.”

The series relies on reams of academic research and statistical inferences that most television producers, even on PBS, might have found daunting. But the arguments are laid out clearly and illustrated with moving encounters with people who daily face being sick and dying prematurely because of the high and growing economic inequality in America.

This post was written by ITT Senior Editor David Moberg, who has really been working overtime lately.

Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.

View Comments